Having just finished my second year of sixth form and A-Levels, I am eager to share with you an extensive list of everything I wish I did, everything I did wrong and the few things I managed to get right for the past two years of my life.
The reality is, A-Levels are a significant jump from GCSEs and it’s often a bumpy ride before things can sort themselves out. The content is a lot more in depth and despite the fact that you’re doing only three or four subjects, it can often be more taxing because there are new concepts that are more difficult to understand. You might find you have to do a lot more work at home and there’s quite a focus on independent work because there are less contact hours in terms of comparing to how much time you should ideally be spending on each subject.
First and foremost, college is very different to high school in terms of there being a lot less structure in your day. I know it may be different for certain sixth forms but for the majority, college is very flexible because you only need to go in for your lessons, which means you can end up starting late or finishing early on various days. For me, personally, doing four subjects and the EPQ in second year, my weeks were often full to the brim, with me having four 8:40-4:00 days in first year, so it basically just felt like a normal full day of school. However, I did end up having quite a few free periods, notably in second year when I used to have four hours free on a Thursday! That was a killer, I assure you, because everyone tends to knuckle down in second year anyways and people (certainly those in my friendship circle) were not eager to spend a huge amount of time outside of the library.
Despite my own experiences, I would encourage you to go out and explore a lot in your free periods. Go get lunch at a new spot every week, visit surrounding areas and enjoy yourself, especially when you don’t have much intense work to be doing. My college was located within a 10 minute walk of the town centre and I mean, it wasn’t the most glamorous place, but that didn’t stop us visiting often to get food or even go to the arcade during frees. I know some people who even watched whole movies during their frees but that’s a risky move and something that needs to be planned out quite carefully before being executed.
I mentioned earlier about there being a lot of independent work to do at college and we were recommended to do about 7 hours of extra work per subject per week, which is definitely as intense as it sounds because that’s an extra 21/28 hours (depending on how many subjects you do) on top of the 15/20 hours of lesson time you get. In all honesty, very few people stuck to 7 hours a week from the start because it simply doesn’t compute so early on that you need to put that much effort in right away.
For me, it got jarring around Christmas time of the first year I think, because when internal exams start piling up and your workload is only increasing, you struggle to take earlier work and turn it into legible notes for revision. From then on, I’d like to think I really got myself into order and worked a lot harder in order to make things easier for myself. Nevertheless, I don’t think counting my studies in hours was something I did accurately enough to give you exact numbers. Personally, college work was essentially the only thing I had to do because my social life, I am sad to say, was feeble and I wasn’t working a part-time job either so my life really wasn’t occupied by anything for pretty much the whole of the two years. Although I did volunteer quite a bit, but that was mainly on the weekends so it didn’t really have an effect on my studies too much.
While we’re on the subject of jobs, by the way, I think it’s a great idea to get a job and honestly, it’s very possible to manage a part-time job with college work as I knew a lot of people who were doing this, but I would suggest taking extended leave during exam season because your priority should really be exams. I remember, my French teacher expressed her extreme disapproval at anyone working during exam season and she suggested that they save their work for summer.
In terms of studying, and here comes the real meat of it, I can’t sugarcoat the fact that it’s a lot of hard work. It is definitely easier if you’re prepared with good notes but the amount of practice you do will actually determine how things go for you. The way I’d describe it is that it’s like a recipe, which comes with an estimated time for preparation and then the time for actually making it. If anything, the preparation will often take longer than the making but that makes sense because with good foundations, you can build on top with ease.
So for science subjects, particularly content heavy ones like biology, I would suggest you make very detailed notes while covering the concepts in class. In your independent study hours for these subjects, cover different avenues of possible questions and explore different examples of things that represent certain topics. For example, if you’re studying about DNA fingerprinting in humans, have a look and find information about DNA fingerprinting in different animals. Have there been any significant revelations due to this? Have scientists discovered anything extraordinary because of this? Exam questions, especially for biology, are known to venture off into new territory because they want to see if you can apply what you’ve learnt to a new situation.
Also, having detailed notes that utilise lots of different sources (like textbooks, college-provided resources and notes and the Internet) mean that when it comes to making condensed notes, you will only need to use one source because everything will already be collated together. That was the next step for me: making condensed, very precise notes, taken right from the specification. I’m not sure if you’ve been acquainted with our friend, the specification, while doing GCSEs but he remains a trusty, helpful document because he contains absolutely everything you need to know. Never mind the fact that exam boards can stray from him for certain questions, but I won’t start venting here, and I assure you that almost everything on your exams will be stated in the specification. I made these notes when preparing for internal exams and little class tests because not only did they become excellent revision for the specific tests, but they would also become very useful for exams in the future too.
Here are some pictures of my condensed notes, which could inspire you for your own. I did all of these on little flashcards attached with a ring which I bought from Asda.
All in all, having consistent notes for every subject is important, even if it’s not in the same format for each. (My chemistry notes just became stapled A4 documents highlighting everything important on the specification!) Admittedly, this can be quite difficult for subjects like maths which really rely on practice for improvement, but I did end up making notes for every module we did in second year in maths because there were certain things we had to remember and model answers for the few written questions. I also included quite a few worked examples in my maths notes because it helped to jog my memory of how to approach certain types of questions.
Other than that however, for maths, the most important thing was tackling as many past paper questions as possible. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources available online and an absolute hoard of questions you can try on every single topic that could come up on A-Level maths, so your main focus should be to go through all of them if you can. Really, I would suggest that you do a past paper every week from when you finish your first module in maths (probably Core 1) and just add more on for different modules when you cover them or if you are coming close to exam season and you need more practice.
When it got closer to exams, I bought a new notebook which was kind of an emergency notebook for making very detailed notes on topics that were harder than others and that I’d forgotten. I made this because all of my older, detailed notes were filed away in various places and would have been hard to access as well as bulky to carry around. I can’t recommend an emergency notebook enough because it became my go-to notes for things I struggled with and I could turn to it while I did past paper questions. Even during exam season, I used this notebook to make notes on potential topics that could have come up on the last chemistry exam seeing as I always kept this with me during revision. I think this was quite fun for me because there was no set structure to it and I made notes in any way that would help me, including silly diagrams and funny mnemonics that would remind me of important things.
Languages, are a whole different can of worms however, because I really felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of resources and sheets of paper we were given in French. My God, the sheets would not end.
One of my friends had a very beautiful notebook that she dedicated to new, interesting vocabulary she learned and I really regret not doing the same thing because I think it’s such a fantastic idea. It just becomes a great resource for vocabulary on every single topic but it includes words that are a bit more out there and higher level so you can use them for writing or you already know them if they come up in reading comprehensions.
My best advice for learning a language at A-Level would be to immerse yourself in that language and embrace it wholeheartedly. There is nothing to memorise at this level and the focus is being able to talk spontaneously on any topic. It’s a real challenge but honestly, it has been my favourite subject throughout college. There is no “this won’t come up on the exam so we won’t teach it to you” because anything and everything is relevant and pertinent. The intricacies and subtleties of languages have always appealed to me and I had a whole lot of fun learning French. I suggest you change your phone settings to your language of choice, watch videos in that language, listen to music in that language, read books and articles in that language, because as much exposure as possible will help you so much. Also, languages aren’t really something you can cram for the night before because it’s an internal skill you hone over a long time and I’m a firm believer that surrounding yourself with that language is more than enough to get you through.
Unfortunately, I can’t really help with any other subjects because I only did maths, biology, chemistry and French, but I think a similar plan would apply well for many subjects (maybe besides English, because I really don’t know what goes on at A-Level English!)
I hope if you take away anything from my advice is that you are more than capable of doing well at A-Level and it’s not all doom and gloom studying! The discipline required teaches you a lot about yourself and I’m sure, even with a rough start, you can get yourself into a good position and achieve whatever it is you want to achieve. My experience has been challenging but I really hope it will be worth it on results day and I’m sure yours will be just as good. College is a stepping stone to the rest of your life and you meet some wonderful people on your journey, that you’ll cherish forever.
Thank you all so much for reading, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to leave them below and I’ll be more than happy to expand on anything you’d like me to.
I will speak to you in my next post!